DeMeco Ryans was out for dinner on Monday night when he saw the news alert on television that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo might not play in Sunday's game against the Eagles.
Ryans' initial reaction was shock. He thought Romo might have injured a knee last weekend, but did not expect a back injury that would sideline Romo for an extended period.
"I was puzzled when I first heard the news," Ryans said.
But, Ryans emphasized, it did not change what he thought of Sunday's game, which is a de facto NFC East championship. Cowboys backup quarterback Kyle Orton has started 69 games in the NFL, and the consensus in the Eagles' locker room was that Orton's resume merits respect.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis worked on the defensive game play when the news surfaced around 4:30 p.m. on Monday. Davis said when injuries occur early in the week, "we don't believe it at first." He said that the coaching staff still thinks Romo might play, which Cowboys owner Jerry Jones suggested is a possibility. But the defensive scheme did not require significant alterations.
"It really wasn't earth-shattering," Davis said. "Do we take a longer look at Kyle Orton? Absolutely. But we're going to prepare for all of their weapons."
Davis has coached against Orton before. In 2010, when Davis was the Arizona Cardinals defense coordinator and Orton the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback, Orton threw three interceptions in a 43-13 loss.
Davis publicly praised the Cowboys backup, who has a 35-34 record as a starter. Davis called Orton "a highly efficient quarterback" who has a "great presence" and "sees the field well." Orton does not key in on a single receiver, Davis said, and is a "great system quarterback" who understands coverages, route concepts, and can accurately deliver the ball to his target.
"We've got a great challenge no matter who the quarterback is," Davis said. "Kyle Orton can start for a lot of teams in the NFL."
Davis might have been overly effusive in his praise, which is common when discussing an opposing quarterback. The prevailing emphasis was that the Eagles are spending time focusing on the Cowboys' system, which is not expected to change. That was Davis' message in the defensive meeting room on Tuesday.
Davis said the uncertainty of who will play quarterback is more of a challenge when the two quarterbacks are so different, but there are enough similarities between Romo and Orton that Davis expects a comparable scheme. The Eagles limited the Cowboys to 17 points in an Oct. 20 game and have an understanding of their scheme with Romo at command.
"We're going to be ready and prepared for whoever's at quarterback," cornerback Bradley Fletcher said.
The Eagles expect a heavy dose of DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys running back has 1,073 yards and averages 5.4 yards per carry, and is often underutilized. Murray's 22 carries in last Sunday's win were his most since Dec. 22. Of the top 10 rushers in the NFL, Murray has the fewest carries and the most yards per carry.
Davis said the Cowboys offense had been going in the direction of involving Murray more frequently, so the Eagles anticipated Murray would be a prominent part of the offense even with a healthy Romo.
"We're expecting them to run the ball a lot more," Ryans said. "I know he's been wanting the ball a lot more, and we're definitely expecting him to get it this game."
Ryans, who is the leader of the Eagles' defense, was emphatic that the Eagles would not fall into the trap of losing an edge because of Romo's injury. The Eagles were embarrassed by the Minnesota Vikings despite Minnesota missing five starters, including their best player. Ryans said the stakes of Sunday's game ensure focus.
"If anything, we're more heightened, more aware of what's going on," he said.
That was the sentiment throughout the Eagles locker room. They did not know the latest on Romo's status, and they did not seem especially eager for the information. The message from Davis is to prepare for the Cowboys scheme, and the Eagles say they'll be ready for both quarterbacks. Whether they are will be seen on Sunday night.
"If [Romo is] healthy, we're ready for his best," Davis said. "And if Orton is the quarterback, then we're ready for their best. We'll give them ours."